Published on April 5th, 2021 | by All Things Warrington


Anna Laetitia Barbauld (1743-1825)

And the songbird keeps singing – poet, hymn writer, teacher, critic & children’s author extraordinaire!

Anna Laetitia Barbauld (nee Aikin) was one of England’s most respected female poets. Active in what was known as the Romantic period, she forged a path for women writers everywhere, carving out a successful multi-facetted career as a poet, hymn writer, essayist, teacher, critic, editor and children’s author. In an era largely dominated by men, her willingness to address political issues – a trait that would lead to a backlash in her twilight years – won her many plaudits and her role in the acceptance of female participation in the arts should not be underestimated.

The site of the Aikin home in Dial Street, Warrington (now the home of Warrington Conservative Club) where Anna lived from 1758 until her marriage to Rochemont Barbauld in 1774.

Born in Kibworth, Leicestershire in 1743, Anna moved to Warrington at the age of 15 when her father John Aikin, a dissenting minister (a religious man opposed to state interference in church matters) accepted a position teaching languages at one of the country’s most revered dissenting colleges: the old Warrington Academy at Bridgefoot.

The learned atmosphere and non-conformist attitude at the Academy had a profound effect on Anna, adding to her already formidable intellect, and it was here she met Joseph Priestley, the renowned scientist and philosopher often credited with the discovery of oxygen. Priestley claimed it was he who inspired Anna to write her first lines of poetry: “Mrs. Barbauld has told me that it was the perusal of some verses of mine that first induced her to write anything in verse,” said Priestley in his memoirs.

The start of Anna’s career as a poet can thus be dated to between 1761, the year she first encountered the great theologist, and 1767, the year Priestley and his wife left the Academy for Leeds. 

Pretty as picture with the words to match – Anna Laetitia Barbauld (Nancy to her friends) was a prolific poet whose work was influenced by the stimulating atmosphere at the old Warrington Academy at Bridgefoot. 

In the years that followed, Anna’s reputation as a poet within the walls of the Academy increased with her manuscript poems devoured by teachers, students and visitors alike. Notable compositions from this era include ‘The Mouse’s Petition’ (c1767) ‘Corsica’ (c1769), and ‘The Invitation’(c1768), the latter a heartfelt celebration of the Academy and its achievements {Mark where its simple front yon mansion rears, the nursery of men for future years}. 

The 1770s marked a major breakthrough in Anna’s career. In 1772, she saw a selection of her work published for the first time by Academy tutor Dr William Enfield in his ‘Hymns for Public Worship’ book. This, coupled with the encouragement she received from her younger brother John Aikin Jnr, inspired her to release her own book of poetry. Published in 1773, ‘Poems’ was an instant success going through an astonishing four print runs in its first year.

A lover of animals and nature, one of Anna’s earliest works was ‘The Mouse’s Petition’, a poetic plea to her friend, the scientist Joseph Priestley not to kill a mouse she discovered in one of his laboratory cages. So moved was Priestley by Anna’s plea the next morning he released the creature. Luckily for the mouse, Anna was in Priestley’s Leeds home at the time. If he’d been in Warrington Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire Cat might have had him instead.

With her career now in the ascendancy, Anna had no shortage of male admirers. Not only was she clever, she was also blessed with good looks; her niece Lucy Aikin described her as “the bloom of perfect health, her dark blue eyes beaming with the light of wit and fancy”. Such attributes were not lost on people like the great prison reformer John Howard who was so taken with Anna he made a special journey to Warrington in 1774 to make his feelings for her known. Unfortunately, he was too late. Anna had already married former Academy pupil, Rochemont Barbauld, a dissenting minister with a French background, and was on her way to Palgrave in Suffolk to help him establish a small dissenting academy of his own.

It was a move that signalled the end of Anna’s time in Warrington, an eventful sixteen year period that saw her evolve from an educated but inexperienced young woman into a successful published poet with the world at her feet.

Warrington however was never far from her thoughts and her experiences in the town continued to inspire her for the rest of her life. In 1777 she briefly returned to Warrington to adopt her brother’s third son, Charles, and as late as 1789 she proved the ‘Athens of the North’ was still on her mind when she wrote her ‘Epistle to Dr Enfield on his revisiting Warrington’poem.

As well as teaching at her husband’s Palgrave Academy, Anna’s post-Warrington career involved the publication of a series of books entitled ‘Lessons for Children’. Adopting a relaxed, conversational “mother-talking-to-a-child” style, the books encouraged sensory learning techniques and featured text that increased in difficulty as a child’s knowledge improved. Published in four volumes between 1777 and 1778, the books are now recognised as being ‘revolutionary’ in their approach and were forerunners for much of the children’s educational literature that exists today. It might be pushing it a little, but if it wasn’t for Anna’s ‘Lessons for Children’ series, Peter & Jane, Dick & Dora, and Biff, Chip & Kipper may never have existed!

By 1779 so successful was Anna’s work she was included on Richard Samuel’s painting ‘The Nine Living Muses of Great Britain’ honouring women who had made significant contributions to English society and learning. Anna is portrayed second on the left with her hand outstretched. C

It is easy to imagine Anna’s life at this time as being the perfect mix of literary success and domestic bliss. However, a deterioration in her husband’s mental health in the mid-1780s prompted a move to Hampstead where life with an ailing husband led to a darker, more serious focus to her work. It was here that Anna’s output gained a more political edge with the publication of a number of human rights pieces including ‘Epistle to William Wilberforce Esq. on the Rejection of the Bill for Abolishing the Slave Trade’ (1791) and her anti-war dissertation ‘Sins of Government, Sins of the Nation’ (1793).

With her husband’s fragile mental health failing to improve, a further move was necessary in 1802, this time across London to Stoke Newington so Anna could be closer to her supportive brother John. However, in 1808, after her husband attacked her with a kitchen knife, Anna had no choice but to seek professional help and put him into specialist care. Sadly, 10 months later, Rochemont Barbauld broke free from his carer and drowned himself in the nearby New River.

An 1853 edition of Anna’s ‘Lessons For Children’ book. With references to her adopted son Charles throughout, the book was published in many languages. All versions were printed, at Mrs Barbauld’s insistence, in large type with wide margins so children could easily understand them – a style of presentation she is believed to have originated.

Anna was devastated by her husband’s suicide but after a brief sabbatical she returned to the public eye in 1810 with a gigantic fifty volume critique on British writers, entitled ‘The British Novelists’. 

Her final published work, the poem ‘Eighteen Hundred and Eleven’, caused outrage for criticising Britain’s participation in the Napoleonic wars. So stung was Anna by the furore that followed, she withdrew from public life and never published another piece of original work again. Today, however, the poem is rightly regarded as one of her finest works. 

Anna Laetitia Barbauld, undoubtedly one of Warrington’s greatest adopted daughters, died in Newington Green on 9 March 1825 aged 82. A memorial to her, located at Stoke Newington’s St Mary’s Unitarian Chapel, reads:-

Endowed by the giver of all good
With wit, genius, poetic talent, and a vigorous understanding, 
She employed these high gifts 
in promoting the cause of humanity, peace and justice, 
of civil and religious liberty, 
of pure ardent and affectionate devotion. 
Let the young, nurtured by her writings in the pure spirit of Christian morality;
Let those of maturer years, capable of appreciating 
the acuteness, the brilliant fancy, and sound reasoning 
of her literary compositions;
Let the surviving few who shared her delightful 
and instructive conversation,
Bear witness that this monument records 
no exaggerated praise

Fitting words for an extraordinary woman.

In the past thirty years, Anna Laetitia Barbauld’s canon of work has enjoyed a resurgence in popularity, and once again she is receiving the recognition she deserves. Warrington’s songbird, after all these years, is still singing. Examples of Mrs Baubauld’s most obvious Warrington-inspired work can be found in the Poetry section of All Things Warrington.

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